The best Pirates pitching season of every era

December 14th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- There are no pitchers in the Hall of Fame wearing a Pirates cap, and Pittsburgh has only featured two National League Cy Young Award winners: Vern Law in 1960 and Doug Drabek in 1990. But that doesn’t mean the club's history is devoid of quality pitchers who have had great seasons.

The Pirates have had dominant starters in every era, from Deacon Phillippe and Babe Adams to Law and Bob Friend to John Candelaria and Drabek. And those aren’t the only pitchers to put together excellent individual campaigns while wearing black and gold.

Trying to compare and rank pitchers across different generations is a nearly impossible task, considering how the role of the starter has evolved from 1887 to 2020, so we won’t just list the Pirates’ five best individual pitching seasons in order here. Instead, let’s divide the Pirates’ modern-era history (since 1900) into five periods and highlight the best single-season pitching performances from each one.

The dead ball era, 1900-1919: Babe Adams, 1919

There are so many excellent candidates within this timeframe, including at least four seasons pitched by Adams himself. He only pitched in 25 games in 1909, but that season he went 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA in 130 innings and followed that regular-season performance with three complete-game victories in the World Series, including a Game 7 shutout.

He was similarly brilliant in 1911 (22-12, 2.33 ERA, 293 1/3 innings) and ’13 (21-10, 2.15 ERA, 313 2/3 innings) and again at the age of 37 in ’19. That year, he went just 17-10 but recorded a 1.98 ERA and MLB-best 0.90 WHIP over 263 1/3 innings while tossing 23 complete games, including six shutouts.

Adams is the Pirates’ all-time leader among pitchers with 52.9 wins above replacement, ranking sixth overall in franchise history behind Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Paul Waner, Arky Vaughan and Willie Stargell.

Other candidates from this era
• Jack Chesbro, 1902: 28-6, 2.17 ERA, 286 1/3 IP, 31 complete games, eight shutouts
• Deacon Phillippe, 1903: 25-9, 2.43 ERA, 289 1/3 IP, 1.03 WHIP, 31 complete games, four shutouts
• Sam Leever, 1903: 25-7, 2.60 ERA, 284 1/3 IP, seven shutouts
• Vic Willis, 1906: 23-13, 1.73 ERA, 322 IP, no home runs allowed
• Wilbur Cooper, 1917: 17-11, 2.36 ERA, 297 2/3 IP, seven shutouts

The live ball era, 1920-46: Cy Blanton, 1935

While Arky Vaughan was playing shortstop and the Waner brothers were patrolling the outfield, Blanton put together the best ERA in the Majors during his incredible 1935 season.

The right-hander finished the year 18-13 with a 2.58 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP, both the best marks in MLB that season, over 254 1/3 innings. Of his 30 starts, 23 were complete games and an NL-best four were shutouts. He received some support in the NL MVP voting, finishing 15th in a year Gabby Hartnett won and Vaughan finished third.

Other candidates from this era
• Cooper, 1922: 23 wins, 3.18 ERA, 294 2/3 IP, NL-best 27 complete games
• Ray Kremer, 1926: After winning World Series Game 7 in 1925, he went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and finished third in the NL MVP voting.
• Kremer, 1927: 19 wins, 2.47 ERA, 226 IP, 18 complete games
• Burleigh Grimes, 1938: 25 wins, 2.99 ERA, 330 2/3 IP, 28 complete games, four shutouts
• Preacher Roe, 1945: 2.87 ERA, 235 IP, NL-best 148 strikeouts

The integration era, 1947-60: Vern Law, 1960

There’s an argument to be made that Law was better in some respects in 1959 or even ’65, but let’s not make this too complicated. Law earned the NL Cy Young Award as the Pirates marched to a World Series championship in 1960, and he was also an All-Star and the sixth-place NL MVP finisher.

This was the first of two NL Cy Young Awards brought home to Pittsburgh, and you’d basically be splitting hairs between this and Law’s stellar ’59 season. Take a look.

Law, 1959: 18-9, 2.98 ERA, 34 games, 20 complete games, 266 IP, 1.12 WHIP
Law, 1960: 20-9, 3.08 ERA, 35 starts, MLB-best 18 complete games, 271 2/3 IP, 1.13 WHIP

Factor in Law’s two victories against the Yankees in the World Series, and it’s easier to pick Law’s 1960 campaign as the Bucs’ best of this era.

Other candidates from this era
• Bob Friend, 1956: 3.46 ERA, 314 1/3 innings, 19 complete games, four shutouts, 42 starts
• Friend, 1958: 22 wins, 3.68 ERA, 274 innings, 16 complete games in MLB-leading 38 starts
• Harvey Haddix, 1959: 3.13 ERA, 224 1/3 innings, NL-best 1.06 WHIP, the near-perfect game
• Friend, 1960: 3.00 ERA, 275 2/3 innings, 16 complete games, four shutouts, All-Star

The expansion era, 1961-93: John Candelaria, 1977

Even without a Cy Young Award to back it up, and even though his no-hitter came a year earlier, this is by some metrics the best single-season pitching performance in recent Pirates history.

Candelaria finished the year with a 20-5 record, a 2.34 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 230 2/3 innings over 33 starts, including six complete games and one shutout. His winning percentage and ERA were the best in the Majors that year. His 169 adjusted ERA+ was not just the best mark in MLB in 1977 but, in fact, the best for any Pirates pitcher who’s worked at least 180 innings in a season during baseball’s modern era.

The last Pirates pitcher to match or exceed Candelaria’s 7.4 WAR in 1977 was Adams, who totaled 7.4 WAR in 1919. Other advanced metrics like “adjusted pitching runs” and “adjusted pitching wins” rank Candelaria’s ’77 campaign as the franchise’s best in the modern era. It’s just tough to compare his excellence that season to, say, Adams’ high-volume years in the early 1900s or the higher-strikeout pitchers of recent years.

What’s odd about this season is that Candelaria did all that while allowing an NL-leading 29 home runs, tied for the third highest single-season total in Pirates history. But the left-hander and eventual World Series champion in 1979 struck out 133 batters and walked only 50 while allowing fewer than eight hits per nine innings.

There were so many excellent individual seasons during this era, most notably the 1990 NL Cy Young Award-winning campaign of Drabek, but Candelaria’s season stands above the rest.

Other candidates from this era
• Bob Veale, 1965: 2.84 ERA, seven shutouts, 266 IP, 276 K's (best in franchise’s modern era)
• Law, 1965: 2.15 ERA, 13 complete games, four shutouts
• Steve Blass, 1968: 18-6, 2.12 ERA, 12 complete games, seven shutouts
• Rick Reuschel, 1985: 2.27 ERA, 194 IP, nine complete games, 1.06 WHIP
• Rick Rhoden, 1986: 2.84 ERA, 253 2/3 IP, 12 complete games, All-Star, 5th in Cy Young voting
• Drabek, 1990: 22-6, 2.76 ERA, 231 1/3 IP, nine complete games, three shutouts, NL Cy Young

The Wild Card era, 1994-present: Gerrit Cole, 2015

This has not been the most celebrated period in Pirates history, so if we could’ve moved the entire decade of the 1990s into this era, this spot would belong to Drabek’s 1990 campaign. Instead, the nod goes to Cole’s all-around excellent 2015 season -- a year that, unfortunately for the Pirates, only offered a glimpse of the ace potential he would fully display in Houston and New York.

Fronting the rotation of a 98-win team, Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings over 32 starts. His adjusted ERA+ was 49 percent better than the league average, the best such mark for any Pirates starter to work at least 180 innings since 1994. And he was outstanding when the Bucs needed him down the stretch, as Pittsburgh won his final five starts of the regular season while he posted a 2.36 ERA against three teams that wound up reaching the postseason.

That year ended with a disappointing start by Cole in the NL Wild Card Game, of course, and Cole finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting behind three historically great performances by Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

Other candidates from this era
• Denny Neagle, 1996 (split with Pirates/Braves): 16-9, 3.50 ERA, 221 1/3 IP, two complete games
• Francisco Cordova, 1998: 3.31 ERA, 220 1/3 IP, three complete games, two shutouts
• Oliver Perez, 2004: 2.98 ERA, 196 IP, 239 strikeouts, two complete games, one shutout
• Jameson Taillon, 2018: 3.20 ERA, 191 IP, MLB-best two complete games and one shutout, 179 K's